Hey, everyone! I’m really stoked to say that I’m hosting another guest post today! This time, it’s a guest post by debut author Leigh Hellman. Leigh is here to discuss their book, Orbit. Specifically, the long road this book undertook to getting written and the way it intersects with queerness.
I can only speak for myself when I say that I’m absolutely thrilled to have books where somewhat older people first start to explore and embrace their queerness because that’s honestly not something I see often and I think these are incredibly important stories.
Let me give you the plot synopsis and a brief biography of Leigh first!
Ciaan Gennett isn’t green, despite the brand of light hair that betrays her heritage: an Earth mother. A mother she remembers but doesn’t know, who left one day and never came back. Ciaan’s as metal as her home planet—cold and hard and full of so many cracks she’s trying to ignore that she doesn’t have time to wonder about questions that don’t get answers.
After one too many run-ins with the law, Ciaan finds herself sentenced to probation at a port facility and given an ultimatum: Prove that your potential is worth believing in. With help from her best friend Tidoris, Ciaan stays away from trouble—and trouble stays away from her. But when a routine refueling turns into a revelation, Ciaan and Tidoris find themselves forced into an alliance with an Earth captain of questionable morality and his stoic, artificially-grown first officer. Their escalating resistance against bureaucratic cover-ups begins unraveling a history of human monstrosity and an ugly truth that Ciaan isn’t so sure she wants to discover.
Now they all must decide how far they are willing to dig into humanity’s dark desperation—and what they are willing to do about what digs back.
Leigh Hellman is a queer/asexual and genderqueer writer, originally from the western suburbs of Chicago, and a graduate of the MA Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. After gaining the ever-lucrative BA in English, they spent five years living and teaching in South Korea before returning to their native Midwest.
Leigh’s short fiction and creative nonfiction work has been featured in Hippocampus Magazine, VIDA Review, and Fulbright Korea Infusion Magazine. Their critical and journalistic work has been featured in the American Book Review, the Gwangju News magazine, and the Windy City Times. Their first novel, Orbit, is a new adult speculative fiction story now available through Snowy Wings Publishing. They also have a historical fantasy piece included in the SWP anthology, Magic at Midnight.
Leigh is a strong advocate for full-day breakfast menus, all varieties of dark chocolate, building a wardrobe based primarily on bad puns, and bathing in the tears of their enemies.
Writing to a Mirror: When Our Stories Stare Back At Us
In the spring of 2008, I churned out a new short story for my senior-year creative writing workshop; my professor had a strict rule against “genre” work, but I hoped that—even with a speculative setting—I could persuade him and the class to consider it. I already had half a dozen headcanons for various fantastical tales churning around in my brain, but something about this one forced it to the top.
That short story would become the first draft of the prologue for my debut fiction novel, Orbit—the genesis of a world that would percolate over the next decade and tangle in unforeseen ways with my own personal growth and identity development.
It seems obvious to say that—at least in some part—a writer’s personal identity is intertwined with their work. Our lives, experiences, and perspectives naturally shape what interests us and what stories we feel compelled to share. But there is another strange facet of this writer-story symbiosis that I’ve discovered, at least for myself: sometimes we tell the stories, and sometimes the stories tell us.
I wrote that prologue and the first few chapters of the book during the last months before I graduated from university, where I’d been an active member of the LGBTQ community and openly queer since I was 16. In my quiet, private moments I’d whispered the word “genderqueer” to myself—I’d heard it at a national organizing conference and it resonated deeply with me, but also filled me with fear and doubt. Was it a valid identity to explore, and if so was I valid in those explorations? Other people—people who were more, who were really, who were enough—could take that on, but not me. I was just faking it.
Those chapters, and any questions that they might have been trying to raise with me, got set aside. Shuffled and filed away, for that magical time of creativity and production known as “later.” They sat there waiting as I got a fellowship and moved to the other side of the world, as I began dipping my toes into new experiences and pushing the boundaries of who I thought I was. They waited four years for me to pick them up again, to finally finish that story, then to go through the first cycle of revisions and rewrites and what-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do-with-this-now-that-it’s-actually-a-thing scrambling.
A few more years rolled by and I came back to the States, back to my hometown, ready to embark on a new adventure. I mentioned the book like I had mentioned “genderqueer” all those years ago: soft and hesitant and certain that I didn’t deserve to be listened to. But I kept talking—about all of it—and suddenly found that there were new opportunities available, new vocabularies and conversations happening.
I heard the term “asexuality” for the first time in its modern definition, and something echoed with that in me too. Same as before, only this time there were more voices claiming pride and validity and support and love. I got an offer to publish my book through the incredible Snowy Wings Publishing co-op, and suddenly it was time to revisit the plot and characters I’d spun out half a decade ago.
As I remembered the characters I’d created then through the fresh lens of asexuality and non-binary-ness, some revelations emerged. Characters I’d thought I’d written to reflect certain narrative preferences I had about love and romance suddenly seemed so clearly on the a-spectrum, and one character in particular—whose struggle with their gender predestinations was already an integral part of the story—was in retrospect a painfully evident exercise in grappling with my own genderqueer identity. I worried that it would take substantial rewrites to integrate these new points, but as I slogged through the final edits I realized that almost all of the framework had already been unconsciously set up by my younger self. It just needed a few tweaks, some clarified foreshadowing and more explicitly-stated scenes, to come to fruition.
I wondered if there would be pushback against my representation choices; would people dislike that somewhat older characters were going through the revelation and realization process rather than just starting out apart from the heterosexual/heteromantic/cisgender dichotomies? Maybe—but that is my truth, the truth of the fluidity and evolution of our identities and the rapid rhetorical shifts that can and do reframe our communities. I first came out when I was 16, but I didn’t realize that I was on the a-spectrum or feel allowed to embrace my non-binary gender until I was 30.
It’s amazing to live in a world where stories can be joyously and popularly told with characters who just are—trans, or bisexual, or pansexual, or asexual, or genderqueer, or non-binary, or aromantic, or lesbian, or gay—without that being what the story is entirely about. That not every story being told about us has to be a specific coming out narrative anymore—that’s invaluable. The diversity in identities and experiences is thrilling, and I’m honored to be a part of that. But discovering an identity is always part of a larger journey, and we all learn about ourselves through our interactions with stories and characters—writers and readers alike.
Orbit taught me a lot about myself, and I hope it can give readers out there a few things to think about too.
Thank you so much for visiting, Leigh!